"The Myths of Biofuels" is the record of a presentation given at a public meeting sponsored by the group Post Carbon Santa Clara Valley (Santa Clara, California) on June 7, 2007, by David Fridley of Lawrence Berkeley Labs and San Francisco Oil Awareness. David is a staff scientist and leader of the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, where his research involves extensive collaboration with the Chinese on end-use energy efficiency, industrial energy use, government energy management programs, data compilation and analysis, and medium and long term energy policy research.
Mr. Fridley has been concerned about the potential effects of petroleum depletion (peak oil) on world societies for a number of years, and the headlong rush into the production of biofuels (agrofuels) as a "fix" for increasingly constrained world petroleum supplies.
Points discussed and analyzed in this video include:
1) Is large-scale biofuel production sustainable?
2) Are biofuels environmentally friendly and do they reduce CO2 emissions?
3) Will biofuels help us achieve "energy independence"?
4) Do biofuels help farmers?
5) Will "second-generation" biofuels (cellulosic ethanol, etc.) save us?
6) Will the production of biofuels allow us to continue our current way of life?
February 29, 2008
Let me offer some observations on Fridley's lecture:
Fridley makes a good case for the limitations of what biofuels can do. Like most commentators he measures biofuels by their ability to meet current energy needs (more or less life as we know it), and finds them dramatically wanting. Whether they are viable or useful for small scale, decentralized production, with much lower population densities -- my main concern -- he does not address.
Fridley discusses the energy-in vs. energy-out question, and concludes that it's 'a wash,' as he puts it, for ethanol, that is, that energy-in more or less equals energy-out. He points out that biodiesel gets about a 2 for 1 return. Of course we're used to getting many times more energy out of fossil fuels than we use in obtaining and refining them, on the order of 30 to 1, so there's no question that we will have far less energy available as oil runs out.
His numbers are in the low range of what researchers claim for returns on biofuels, but let's take them at face value. Even somewhat better returns (which would probably occur through technical modifications and experience in production) would not change the big picture.
His point is hard to overstate; the shortfall is so great as to be unbridgeable. It's a good demonstration of how far beyond the planet's carrying capacity our use of fossil fuels has carried us. If anything, Fridley somewhat understates the looming crisis.
At the very least, as long as we try to use biofuels in an effort to meet demands in excess of carrying capacity, then we will only end up making things worse, degrading the environment further, forcing nasty choices between food and fuel, and so on. He and others critics are convincing about that, about large-scale production of biofuels.
Far from disputing any of this, I'm more than willing to accept it, and have been long before I heard Fridley's lecture. What Fridley and many others demonstrate is that biofuels are not scalable, as they put it, to meet anything remotely approximating current energy demands.
But once we abandon that unreasonable goal, the picture changes. Biofuels at the right scale may be quite acceptable, as far as I can see, and even desirable, and perhaps more useful than anything else (wind, nuclear, etc.). That the right scale is frighteningly small is a shocker, but given that scale we can have biofuels and likely will find them valuable.
Biofuels aren't the problem; the problem is the scale of their use. They should not be dismissed because they can't provide the energy everyone needs.
So I come to relocalization. It would seem that small populations in rural settings could provide some and perhaps most of their essential energy (now vastly reduced in quantity with vastly reduced demand) through biofuels, that is, as long as they stayed within the renewable carrying capacity. This means adjusting population to resources, instead of trying to adjust resources to population.
The trouble with Fridley (and most biofuels critics) is the continued implicit assumption they make that we have to judge biofuels by current demand, unsustainable as it is. They keep showing us over and over how impossible it is, as if this is a goal we must somehow meet. But it can't be done, it seems; there just isn't enough to go around for all of us to survive.
The result is a paralysis, a state in which nothing can be done. Not even conservation will make up the vast degree of overshoot.
Of course, what no one wants to say is that the consequence is die-off for most people. So we stand around wringing our hands, caught between a rock and a hard place.
I'm interested instead in what can be done locally by small numbers of people with the resources still available to them. It happens, relatively speaking, that I live in a place with a small population and resources of biomass considerable for that population. It would be foolish and perhaps even irresponsible for us here not to explore the use of alternatives like small scale biofuels to provide at least for ourselves and our descendents, if not for everyone else. If we can't save the world, we might as least be able to save ourselves, and even that is a dicey proposition.
I know, it sounds ungenerous and hard, and it bothers me too. It's a grim business.